Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said new analysis of satellite data by British investigators indicated the flight went down “far from any possible landing sites,” a conclusion he said had been reached with “deep sadness and regret”.
Sixteen days after the plane took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, relatives of the 239 people on board were told their loved ones had perished in a “remote location”. Although the exact whereabouts of the remains of the Boeing 777 remain unknown – along with the reason for the crash – authorities said the plane’s last position was “in the middle of the Indian Ocean” west of the Australian city of Perth.
The news came after objects were seen in parts of the vast search area, some of the world’s most treacherous and remote waters.
Mr Razak said the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and Inmarsat, a London-headquartered global satellite firm, had been able to “shed more light” on the craft’s flightpath using calculations “never before used in an investigation of this sort”.
Addressing a news conference, he said: “Based on their new analysis, Inmarsat and the AAIB have concluded MH370 flew along the southern corridor [one possible track], and that its last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth.
“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites. It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”
He added: “Malaysia Airlines have already spoken to the families of the passengers and crew to inform them of this development. For them, the past few weeks have been heartbreaking; I know this news must be harder still.”
Families of the passengers wept openly after being told the news at a Beijing hotel, with one elderly man requiring to be carried out of the room on a stretcher, while another relative collapsed with grief.
In a statement, the Chinese foreign ministry said it demanded Malaysia provide “all information and evidence” which led to the announcement, adding authorities were “paying great attention”.
In Kuala Lumpur, screaming could be heard from inside the Hotel Bangi Putrajaya, where some of the families of passengers had been given rooms.
Selamat Omar, the father of a 29-year-old aviation engineer who was on the flight, said: “We accept the news of the tragedy. It is fate.”
Search teams from 26 nations have pored over radar data and scoured a wide swathe of Asia with advanced aircraft and ships in a deeply frustrating attempt to find the plane.
Malaysia Airlines said in a statement to the families: “Our prayers go out to all the loved ones of the 226 passengers and of our 13 friends and colleagues at this enormously painful time.
“We know there are no words that we or anyone else can say which can ease your pain,” the airline added.
“The ongoing multinational search operation will continue, as we seek answers to the questions which remain.”
The airline communicated the development to relatives they were unable to speak to face to face via text message ahead of Mr Razak’s press conference.
According to the airline’s website, it read: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets we have to assume that MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s prime minister, new analysis of satellite data suggests the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean.”
However, the airline denied reports it had only used SMS to inform relatives, explaining that the message was “conveyed to all families face to face by our top management at the hotels”.
An official last night said there were no plans to fly the families to Perth, in Western Australia, until wreckage is found.
The breakthrough which led to yesterday’s announcement involved a large amount of data analysis by Inmarsat, focusing on a number of factors including the movements of other aircraft.
Although flight MH370’s main communications were switched off, one of Inmarsat’s satellites continued to pick up a series of automated hourly “pings” from a terminal on the plane, which would normally be used to synchronise timing information.
By analysing these pings, Inmarsat was able to establish that MH370 continued to fly for at least five hours after the aircraft left Malaysian airspace, and that it had flown along either a northern or southern corridor. The data was then subject to further testing, which identified the plane took a southern route.
Chris McLaughlin, Inmarsat’s senior vice-president, said the analytical method employed by his company gave “the approxomate direction of travel, plus or minus about 100 miles, to a track line”.
He explained: “Unfortunately this is a 1990s satellite over the Indian Ocean that is not GPS-equipped. All we believe we can do is to say that we believe it is in this general location, but we cannot give you the final few feet and inches where it landed. It’s not that sort of system.
“We obviously take a professional sense of pride in the contribution but we don’t diminish for a moment the sadness that will be around the families involved in this.”
The company passed the relevant analysis to the AAIB on Sunday. Mr Razak said a news conference will be held today with further details of the analysis of the satellite data.
Yesterday, ships headed to the location of floating objects spotted by Australian and Chinese planes close to where multiple satellites have detected possible remains of the lost airliner.
One ship was carrying equipment to trace the plane’s vital black box, but it remained uncertain whether they were approaching a successful end to the search or another dead end.